Thursday, March 21, 2013

From Discrimination to Diversity: An Airmont Saga

The real winner in this past Tuesday's election in Rockland County's Airmont?  Diversity and compromise--  all candidates in this municipality, once found to discriminate against Orthodox Jews, courted that community's vote.  The results offer the possibility of coalition politics that balances the zoning concerns of longtime residents with the cultural needs of the religious newcomers.

Incumbent Mayor Veronica Boesch survived an energetic challenge from Planning Board member Tom Gulla.  The turnout was 1,528.  Interest in the campaign was high and shaped by local news site Airmont Scoop.  Candidates, including the Mayor, posted on the site's Facebook page and the site reportedly scored hundreds of hits on election day.

Boesch polled 791votes; Gulla 696.  While Gulla polled more strongly among Orthodox Jewish voters, Boesch courted the community as well and her 95 vote margin of victory came from that support.

In the 1990s, Airmont first butted heads with the Department of Justice over land use restrictions that made it a virtual impossibility to open a synagogue in the village.  Years of public and private litigation were ultimately resolved by two settlements. One required a rewritten zoning code and $1,000,000 in payments by village taxpayers for the Orthodox Jewish plaintiffs legal fees; reports said village taxpayers spent nearly $500,000 in legal fees.  A 2011 settlement required a $10,000 civil penalty and further amendments to the zoning code.  Controversy over the settlement dominated Airmont politics for years.

But Orthodox Jews continued to move to Airmont-- and, in some cases, found a markedly different approach.  The chassidic singing sensation Lipa Schmeltzer received approval for a synagogue in 2010 with minimal controversy (I represented the application before the Planning Board).  Some village residents report a far more cooperative relationship with local officials.

While some local observers thought Boesch would be felled by controversy over property tax levels in this village of 9,000, she was backed energetically and unreservedly by Preserve Ramapo, the anti-development group, and County Legislator Joe Meyers.  Meyers proved once again that he remains a popular figure in his district; his get out the vote operation is far more effective than many local politicians.  A robocall endorsement for Boesch from State Senator David Carlucci was also critical to the incumbent's victory.

The strong vote for Gulla-- and for independent, first-time village Trustee candidates Randi Mallia and Veronique Allen-Hazell came mostly from Orthodox voters, who are now a clearly established 700 plus voting bloc in the village.  Incumbent trustees Dennis Cohen and Ralph Bracco received 1252 and 913 votes respectively; Allen-Hazell notched 620 votes and Mallia 615.  Given the rate of the community's growth in Airmont, it is now impossible for anyone to be elected there without Orthodox Jewish votes.  While Boesch won the minority of the bloc vote,  Cohen's broad support in many quarters suggests the possibility of a future mayoral bid by the former village Planning Board chairman.

The Orthodox Jewish voters of Airmont, however, differ from their compatriots in other parts of the Town of Ramapo, within which the village is contained.  They moved to Airmont for a more diverse, less crowded community with larger lots for more traditional suburban homes.  While they advocate for approvals for their religious institutions and some flexibility in local land use rules to accommodate larger families, you do not hear any interest in the large multifamily housing developments in Monsey's more urban core.

Political survival in Airmont now depends on effective bridge-building between Orthodox Jewish voters and the longtime homeowners, including many secular Jews, who oppose massive housing construction and fear changes to the suburban charm of the community's neighborhoods.  How the community's leaders cross those bridges will determine its future.